Magazine - Crimean Tatars 2

Photo: Bossi (c)

‘A People Called ‘Dissidents’, by Lily Hyde

The struggle that Crimean Tatars face for equality in Ukraine has taken on a new urgency, after Russia turned them into exiles in their own homeland

by Lily Hyde

Sky-blue Crimean Tatar flags fly from many houses in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, where smells of coffee and chiburekki (meat pasties) drift out from cafes onto the uneven streets. There are few Russian tricolours to be seen here in the historical capital of the Crimean Tatars, while any Ukrainian flags disappeared months ago. The Muslim call to prayer, silenced during Soviet times, echoes over the palace built by the Crimean Tatar khans 500 years ago, when Crimea was neither Russian nor Ukrainian, but a Crimean Khanate vassal of the Ottoman Empire.

All seems peaceful. But political upheavals have called into question the survival of both mosques and cafes, and left the Crimean Tatars who live here fearing for their homes and livelihoods.

‘I live here in my homeland, I built my house over 20 years, I’ve done so much work — and now it seems as if anyone can come along tomorrow and kick me out,’ says Fatime Seifulaeva, a local teacher. ‘We’re all afraid. But we’re confident of one thing: we won’t give up our homeland again.’

The Muslim, Turkic Crimean Tatars had to give up their homeland once, when they were deported from Crimea in 1944. Now they make up 12 to 15 per cent of the Crimean population, but they consider themselves Crimea’s indigenous people and have fought a long battle with Russia, the Soviet Union, and Ukraine for recognition.

‘We don’t have another homeland,’ says Fatime. ‘When we pray to Allah, we say ‘You gave us a homeland like Paradise.’

With a deep-seated opposition to Russia going back to the deportation and further, the Crimean Tatars organised a national boycott of the Russian-backed referendum in March 2014, when Crimeans could vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Now that the peninsula has become a de facto part of Russia, Crimean Tatars are battling with many questions: whether to take Russian citizenship or become foreigners in their own land, how to re-register their property and businesses under Russian law, whether their children will be able to study in the Crimean Tatar language. How far to co-operate with a regime they oppose, and how far to resist.

‘I am a Crimean Tatar patriot,’ said businessman Lenur Islyamov at a meeting of Crimean Tatar leaders in Bakhchysarai following annexation, as he offered to take a position in the new Russian-backed Crimean government. ‘And the whole nation cannot be dissidents.’

Yet for the second half of the 20th century the Crimean Tatar nation was exactly that: a stateless nation of dissidents whose peaceful campaign to regain their homeland outlasted the Soviet Union. Many Crimean Tatars, despite Russian laws that punish calls to return Crimea to Ukraine, are not prepared to hide their opposition.

At the same meeting in Bakhchysarai, Ediye Muradasilova marched up to a Russian Muslim leader who had offered support and opportunity in the Russian Federation. Muradasilova compared him to a smooth-talking KGB agent as she presented him with a Ukrainian flag, and told him to pray that Allah would help return Crimea to Ukraine. ‘I said what I wanted to say,’ she said afterwards. ‘He took the flag; I expect he’s hung it up in his toilet.’

Born in 1946, Muradasilova grew up in exile with her parents’ stories and songs about Crimea, and can recount a family trauma she was too young to witness as vividly as if she had been there herself: how, on 18 May 1944, all Crimean Tatars from her village were forced by Soviet soldiers to leave their homes. How they were loaded onto overcrowded, airless cattle wagons that travelled for days to an unknown destination. How at one stop her older brother got off to search for water and never came back. How, weeks later, in a labour camp in the Urals, he somehow found his family again — one small miracle among ten thousand stories of loss.

Such stories, experienced by every Crimean Tatar family forcibly deported from Crimea, are embedded in collective memory where they fostered a national spirit of revolt. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) estimates that almost half the Crimean Tatar population died during the deportation and the following years of hardship. But the Crimean Tatars scattered throughout Central Asia and Siberia formed a Crimean Tatar National Movement that consolidated into a 40-year campaign of peaceful resistance.

Muradasilova, who joined the National Movement in high school, has long experience of Soviet cajolement and repression.

‘In the 1960s they’d call us in and start off by persuading us to cooperate,’ she says. ‘They were always asking, “What more do you want? You can live well here, you’ve got a job, a flat in the centre of Tashkent [capital of Uzbekistan], what else do you need?” They always began by talking so nicely.’

It was not all nice talk. Throughout the 1970s to 1980s many Crimean Tatars were sentenced for organising petitions and appeals; Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Jemilev spent 15 years in Soviet labour camps. It was not until the Soviet Union collapsed that around 200,000 Crimean Tatars finally returned to their homeland between 1989 to 1992. Over the next 23 years in independent Ukraine they built homes, families, schools, businesses — their lives.

Since March, these achievements are under threat as the state cajolement and repression that Muradasilova remembers appears to have returned.

Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar who protested against Russian annexation, was murdered in March; months later, no one has been charged. Jemilev and another Crimean Tatar leader, Refat Chubarov, have been banned from entering Crimea for five years; other prominent Crimean Tatars have been threatened with prison sentences under the Russian law on ‘extremism’. Crimean Tatar journalists have lost their jobs, Crimean Tatar mosques and cafes in Bakhchysarai and elsewhere have had repeated visits from law enforcement agencies searching for Muslim literature that is legal in Ukraine but not in Russia, or for alleged tax or health and hygiene violations.

At the same time, Crimean Tatars have accepted state-funded trips to Russia for legal and business training, to help adapt to living in the Russian Federation. Crimean Tatar cultural foundations and museums are collaborating with their Russian counterparts in finance, education and research.

Levser Islyamov is one young Crimean Tatar who took up the offer of a Russian-funded study trip.

‘This is occupation of Crimea, but you still have to survive in occupation, and know the rules,’ he says. ‘We’ve been faced with a dead end, but our general national idea should be to move forward, to work. We have to be more long-sighted. The fact that we are forced to learn their laws, doesn’t mean we support them.’

Nevertheless, suggestions of collaboration open up deep wounds. The Soviet authorities justified the mass deportation of the Tatar people 70 years ago by accusing the Crimean Tatars of collaboration with Nazi occupiers during World War II.

‘I don’t even want to use that word [collaboration], it’s so painful for my people,’ says journalist Dinara Osmanova.

‘Any decision to cooperate has been forced by necessity. Our lawyers say we are already living under Russian law. Even the time here has changed to Moscow time. We went to bed in Ukraine and woke up in occupied territory.’

With their leaders in exile, the Crimean Tatars in Crimea who fought the Soviet Union for the right to return home find this way of life a hard necessity to accept.